The Big Read in Ashland
by Lynda Wright
Pamunkey Regional Library and Randolph-Macon College received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to bring The Big Read to the central Virginia town of Ashland this winter. The featured title was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a futuristic novel where firemen don’t put out fires but start them in order to burn books. The book was selected for its provocative themes of censorship, isolation, and the future of society. The Ashland area programming for Fahrenheit 451 included book discussions, lectures, public readings, film viewings, and a hands-on activity with a fire extinguisher.
Pamunkey Regional Library has ten branch libraries serving the central Virginia counties of Goochland, Hanover, King and Queen, and King William. Ashland is a town of 7,000 in the western part of Hanover County, home to Randolph-Macon College, a coed, residential college of 1,100 students.
Patty Franz, supervising librarian at Pamunkey Regional Library, and Virginia Young, director of the McGraw-Page Library at Randolph- Macon College, each had their own motivations for participating in The Big Read. “It is part of our job as a public library to promote reading,” said Franz. In Pamunkey’s case, The Big Read fit many of the library’s goals, especially “to cultivate and nurture a love of reading” and to provide a community “commons.”
At Randolph-Macon College, administrators were concerned that an annual higher education assessment tool, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), revealed that R-MC students fall below average in their recreational reading habits. The library has sponsored several programs in the past to promote reading among the college students. The Big Read gave Franz and Young the opportunity to bring the “town and gown” together around a common goal.The report noted a
sharp decline in
literary reading ….
The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Arts Midwest, designed to restore reading to the center of American culture. Based on the one-book, one-community reading programs popularized in the 1990s, The Big Read provides the opportunity and resources to bring various segments of a community together to read and discuss a single book. The NEA created The Big Read program in response to the findings of its 2004 report Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. The report noted a sharp decline in literary reading that cut across age groups, ethnic groups, educational levels, and genders. The twelve Big Read selections are all classic American novels, chosen to appeal to both teen and adult readers in a community.
Young and Franz chose Fahrenheit 451 hoping that the science fiction classic would appeal to male readers. Reading at Risk reports a sharper decline in literary reading among males. In fact, reading groups at both Randolph- Macon College and Pamunkey Regional Library typically attract a larger female audience — women outnumbered men by almost three to one at the Randolph-Macon Big Read events.
Fahrenheit 451 opens with firemen responding to a call. The Randolph-Macon College kickoff event began with the Ashland Fire Department providing hands-on training and practice in using a fire extinguisher. Free copies of the novel, buttons, bookmarks, and snacks attracted participants from all segments of the Randolph- Macon community: faculty, staff, and students. Young noted that due to the heavy reading demands on students during the semester, extracurricular reading is not widely embraced; the hands-on activity offered a welcomed change of pace for the students. Young was encouraged by the enthusiasm with which the Randolph-Macon community received free copies of Fahrenheit 451.
“Book choice is critical.”
The town of Ashland hosted its own kick-off event featuring music, refreshments, and civic leaders reading excerpts from the novel. Ashland’s mayor, Faye O. Prichard, who had requested a community reading program, was one of the featured readers. During the course of The Big Read, over 900 copies of Fahrenheit 451 were distributed throughout the community. Book discussions, related lectures, and viewings of the 1966 film directed by Francois Truffaut were held at various times and venues during February and March. All events were advertised and open to both the town and college communities. Three area high schools also participated in The Big Read, incorporating Fahrenheit 451 into various courses.
“Book choice is critical,” said Young. While she was enthusiastic about Fahrenheit 451, she expressed concerns about the potential of some of the other Big Read titles to engage a community. When Young described some of the book selections as “predictable,” she echoed the sentiments of some critics of the program. While Franz called the book choices “safe,” Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly described them as “homework.” Young would like to see more current literature represented. Franz, too, mentioned contemporary authors, noting that the author’s presence at a reading or discussion is a thrilling experience for readers. (See box for a full list of Big Read book selections.)
Seventy-two communities nationwide were selected to participate in The Big Read from January through June 2007. The Ashland partnership is just one of three Big Read grant recipients in Virginia. Newport News Public Library is featuring Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God in April and May 2007. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville is promoting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a Big Read for all of Virginia. Approximately one hundred communities across the country will be selected to participate in The Big Read for the September through December 2007 grant cycle. In addition to a direct grant, the NEA provides Big Read recipients with a wealth of resource materials including publicity, reader’s guides, teacher’s guides, and audio commentary created for each novel. For more information, please visit http://www.neabigread.org.
Lynda Wright is assistant professor and head of Technical Services at the McGraw-Page Library of Randolph- Macon College. She can be reached at email@example.com.